This isn't a normal blog. Later this month I will attempt to run 100 miles in 24 hours and I have been getting a lot of questions about it. This blog attempts to answer the questions I get and outline the entire process of organising this run.
Why Run 100 Miles?
When people find out that I want to run for 24 continuous hours they usually say something like, "oh fuck, you're mad". Maybe they're right, it's not really for me to say. I don't feel mad or crazy though, I think I'm a normal person who just happens has an extreme sounding hobby - in reality it's not that extreme, just a little unusual. The funny thing is that I don't think running is my hobby. My hobby is pushing my limits to the absolute extreme. I absolutely love running but I honestly think I could replace running with almost any other activity and I would still love my hobby. I do love running so it makes sense I ended up being an ultra runner, but I could probably really enjoy endurance swimming. I'd probably love extreme rock climbing. Even knitting I could probably enjoy if I could only find a way to make it extreme. To be clear, by extreme I don't mean dangerous. I actively avoid danger, I put a huge amount of time and money into reducing the risks of my hobby.
Okay, so I am an ultra endurance runner. But why am I running 100 miles now? 100 miles is the longest standard race distance. By standard race distance I mean that if you look online for running events you'll find many events of that distance. Other standard race distances include 5km, marathon and 100km. There are many continuous running races across the world that are longer than 100 miles, such as the Spine race in the UK (430km/268 miles) and the Tor Des Géants in Italy (330km/205 miles and 24km in vertical ascent!) but these all have unique distances - they're not standard. There are many 100 mile races that I want to run, and I've known this for years. I want to run the South Downs Way, the Lakeland 100 (a brutal run in the UK's Lake District) and the two most famous ultra marathons in the world; the UTMB and the Western States. So the past two years of running further and further have all been with the ultimate goal of building up to 100 miles. This is a huge milestone for me and I will be emotional with success or failure.
I always get asked if I run the entire time on these long runs and it depends really. I certainly don't run continuously the entire time but probably 23 hours and 30 minutes out of 24 hours will be spend putting one foot in front of the other. The 30 minutes I spend not moving will hardly be breaks as I will spend this time refilling water, food, changing clothes, strapping up painful limbs and whatever is needed to continue with the run. The time I spend running will be spent mostly actually running. But when I encounter steep climbs I will choose to hike instead of run because it's much more energy efficient. Ultra running is a maths problem, I need to minimise energy use per mile while maximising speed. I expect to hit low points during the run when I feel hopeless and I might be walking even though the track is downhill and beautiful. There's no way to predict when I'll be feeling good or bad, it's random. During my first 100km run in June 2019 I was feeling awful from 0km to 30km, great from 30km to 55km, really bad from 55km to 65km, amazing from 65km to 85km and then finally really awful from 85km to 100km. It's a roller-coaster! You endure the hard to enjoy the good.
Running 100 miles is hard. Not for the reasons you might expect, but it is still exceptionally difficult. For the entire time you are running you can never give up. If you give up one single time during the 24 hours, you're out. There will be hours and hours where it absolutely sucks and you want nothing more than to call it a day and go to bed. You're cold or you're hot, you're hurting in places you didn't know could hurt. When that happens you have to push through. As long as you can be sure you'll never quit (excluding times when your health is at serious risk) then you'll successfully travel 100 miles.
I'm still trying to figure out why I love endurance running. I don't yet have a full answer and frequently I change my mind on the matter. Within a year I may disagree with half of what I'm about to say.
Firstly, it's the challenge. I love setting myself hard goals that I don't know if I can achieve without hard work. An easy challenge isn't a challenge at all. I love being in nature. Especially in New Zealand the scenery is amazing and the more time I spend around it the better. There's something about the pain and the hard work that is enjoyable in some sort of sadistic way. Something about know you won't quit even though you really want to quit and end the suffering is empowering. It's not really the same as what most people call a runners high but there's definitely a really noticeable enjoyable feeling (a calmness) that I experience during these long runs. There's also a beautiful simplicity to the challenge. I don't worry about anything in my life, I only have one simple task. Keep moving. There's definitely a sense of achievement too, it's nice to know you can run such a long distance. It's nice to know you're strong enough to not quit. Only you know the dark places you went to during the run and you still didn't quit.
Picking a Route
You won't be surprised to discover that a man with a masters degree in geographical information systems (maps) takes a lot of care and interest in planning running routes. My masters dissertation explored the techniques of using publicly available data to calculate 'trail difficulty' for hikers or runners. However each time I am required to create a running route I have different constraints and objectives which create unique problems and sometimes require unique solutions. For example, when I created ultra marathon routes in the UK I used techniques to make sure I frequently passed notable landmarks and pubs. The landmarks serve as distinct physical milestones and the pubs serve as places I can use to refill water bottles. I won't get into the details of how I created these routes but it was an appropriately complex method given my education.
In New Zealand I face different challenges in route planning to what I have experienced before. I still have the same issue with hydration that I have had on all my pervious ultra marathons. I cannot realistically carry all of the water I need to safely complete a run longer than 50 kilometres without stopping to refill somewhere. So to run 161 kilometres (100 miles) I need to refill my water bottles at least two times, ideally more. In New Zealand there isn't a pub on every street corner, usually not even so much as a shed or lamppost. I could take water from a stream or divert to civilisation at frequent intervals. I choose to make frequent trips to the hostel that I live at so that I can simultaneously refill water and food, and change clothing - I can't do that at a stream! This means I am doing lapped courses, instead of one huge loop run. I must plan my route to be either one single short (less than 50 kilometre) lap or a variety of different short laps.
Weather is a significant problem in New Zealand at this time of year. It's mid winter and many of the trails are over 1000 metres elevation, serious snow is not something I want to be dealing with when I am 140 kilometres and 20 hours into a run. It is important to make sure that my route doesn't cross high snowfall areas, even if there's no snow there now. I need to also worry about the freezing temperatures being dangerous if something happens to me during the run. If I break my leg in the middle of the night in a remote location then I will get very cold very quickly. I carry safety gear on me, including a thermal survival bag, but I don't want to put it to the test.
For the first time ever I am planning to be running throughout the night. I ran for hours in the dark (until 2am) during my first 100 kilometre run on June 2019, but this wasn't part of my plan. I expect my 100 miler run this month to take 24 hours which means that no matter when I start I will have to run through the entire 13 hour long night. I cannot be doing this night running on navigationally complex trails, especially if I am tired too. Similarly, I need to consider the time of day that I start running at. If I start my run at 9am then I will spend the final half of the run, when I am most tired, at night. If I start at 9pm then I get the night running out of the way while I am still awake, but I have to adjust myself to a weird sleep schedule before the run - which might screw me up completely.
In the UK there is a public footpath from anywhere to everywhere, and there are ordnance survey maps which clearly show which trails are public access. In New Zealand trails are much more sparse and even the best hiking maps make no distinction between public and private trails. Private trails are very common too. I use a variety of different map services and tools to attempt to determine whether a trail is publicly accessible but the only way to know for sure is to visit in person and see for yourself. Strava and Garmin heat maps can give an early indication, and Google Street View can help too. Visiting the local DOC (department of conservation) building and chatting with the rangers is also a helpful technique. But unless you have been along the trail before you can never be sure that you'll actually be able to do once you get there. I do not want to be 100 kilometres into a run only to find my path is blocked by a fence and a dog. Diverting causes many problems, especially having to make adjustments to the future route to make sure the finishing distance is not effected - all while running. I ran a section of my provisional 100 miler route today and discovered it passed through private land.
These are really just the challenges I've faced since arriving in New Zealand, there are many challenges that have passed over from ultra running in the UK.
I have not decided on my 100 mile route yet. I have a few ideas but each has upsides and downsides. I hope to pick a route which addresses the challenges discussed while also being beautiful and appropriately challenging.
I have never run 100 miles before. I don't know exactly what I should do to prepare for something like this. I can make educated guesses based on my experience with 100 kilometre runs and from what I've heard and read from people who have completed 100 mile runs.
I honestly think that almost every single person can travel 100 miles on foot if they tried hard enough. I promise you that you wouldn't want to, but physically you could do it. You might have just laughed and told me I was wrong but I really don't think I am. So long as you are not currently using crutches (sorry Clara) then you can probably do it. It might take you 50 hours and maybe you have so many blisters on your feet that you can no longer count them. You might be so tired that you hallucinate dragons riding unicycles but as long as you never quit, you'll make it. Running 100 miles is a mental challenge more than it is a physical challenge.
My preparation for this 100 mile run is less about my running and more about my mental state and my organisation. My physical fitness is great right now, I am running stronger than ever before - that's why this is the perfect time to attempt this run. As long as I stay injury free and continue putting in decent miles I am happy. What is more important is to be totally sure in my mind that I have addressed every single possibility that might occur during the 100 miles. I don't want any surprises. Everything is planned to the smallest detail. I will have my route memorised, as well as saved offline on my phone. I will have a checklist to follow when I am resupplying at the hostel after a lap. I will know exactly how much food I should eat and exactly how much water I should drink, plus how much of the water should contain electrolytes. I don't create eating/drinking schedules however since in my experience it's not realistic to have a strict schedule, but still I know if I am not eating enough and I can adjust accordingly.
Preparing myself mentally is less of a science and more an art. I need to feel positive about the run but I should not forget the realistic possibilities. I might fail to actually run 100 miles on this attempt. Running 100 miles can go wrong in so many ways and for so many reasons out of my control, or just because of plain old bad luck. But whatever happens I'm going to learn something and I'll be that much more driven for another attempt at the run in the future. I am very aware of how challenging what I am attempting is but I am absolutely sure it's something I am capable of doing. As long as I understand the reality and still feel totally positive then I'm mental prepared. Needless to say that spending 24 hours with myself is hard work. I'm fortunate to handle the loneliness of ultra running really well, I can keep my mood positive even when things get tough and I can push through when I'm not feeling positive.
Safety is always my biggest consideration. I don't want to sound like an overkill workplace health and safety booklet but I think I will for the next few minutes. Ultra endurance running can be dangerous - you could fall, get lost, freeze or be mauled by a bear. But I generally don't call ultra running dangerous because with the right planning and preparation the risks can be reduced to almost zero. It can be difficult to convince my mum that I'm safe doing a 100 mile run around a mountain with sub zero temperatures and no phone service but I have full confidence in my safety. I know the risks, I have plans for every eventuality and a backup plan for every plan.
When I run in remote locations I wear a 12 litre hydration vest. I have at least one litre of water. I have extra layers of clothing (at least one or two thermal layers, a rain jacket, gloves and socks), a survival bag (a lightweight and waterproof sleep bag essentially) and a first aid kid with appropriate contents. I have all sorts of food - energy gels, clif bars and dried fruit. I will carry crampons if I need them. Sunglasses and a hat if it's sunny. The only thing I don't carry that I wish I did is a emergency GPS locator, such as the Garmin inReach. They aren't cheap!
It's important to know what to do if shit hits the fan. Self extraction is the aim of the game, but if that's not possible then mountain rescue need to be contacted. The best way to do this is with an emergency beacon, but I do not own one yet. I'm going to hire one for this run. Without a beacon my safest option if stuck or lost is to shelter down and get ready to spend the night in the cold. I have enough gear to stay alive overnight even if it's cold and mountain rescue will be called by someone else given that I don't return home. I always make sure people know my intentions with long runs. Where I'm going, when I should be back by.
The most obvious - but often ignored - safety tip is to only attempt something you are actually ready to do. If you're not realistically ready to run 100 miles, or 100km or even 10km, then don't. Build up to it.
Post Run Expectations
When I ran my first 100km I was a wreck at the end. Running was out of the question. I sat on the top of a cliff less than 3km from the finish line and stared up at the night sky for a few minutes. When I went to stand up to give my final push to the finish I almost fell over. I doubt I'd have gone over the cliff edge but I'm glad I held my balance and didn't test my luck. I was so tired that standing up made me extremely light headed and dizzy. When I finished my second 100km I experienced nothing like the same exhaustion as the first. Sure I hallucinated a bit, but I was very awake and very strong at the end. I expect the finale of my 100 miles to be a lot more similar to my first 100km than my second. I expect to be a bumbling mess, probably more so than I've experienced before. Hence, I am planning to try and not be alone at the end of my run, and not be anywhere too remote or dangerous.
This isn't a good advert for ultra endurance running but in my experience the main emotion after finishing an long ultra marathon is depression. I don't mean immediately after finishing, the overwhelming feelings then are obviously relief and exhaustion. It's the days or weeks afterwards when I find myself feeling a constant low-level sadness. If I don't succeed at running 100 miles then I feel crap for obvious reasons. Months of planning, hours and hours of running and something went wrong - that sucks. But even if I do run 100 miles I am sad that this challenge that I have cared about so much is completed. The sadness will turn into excitement with time, especially when I have an idea for my next big adventure. I love the excitement and nerves that come in the build up to a crazy running challenge. I think being nervous is my absolute favourite feeling in the world. The sort of nerves you get when you are waiting for potential good news. When your sports team is minutes away from winning the trophy.